Fantini Mosaici: Making Italian mosaic masterpieces in Mussafah

The company behind the mosaics at Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and Dubai's Palazzo Versace is quietly crafting some of the world's most prestigious works in Abu Dhabi.
After completing a training programme in Lahore, Pakistan, the most promising apprentices are brought to work in the Abu Dhabi facility. Ravindranath K / The National
After completing a training programme in Lahore, Pakistan, the most promising apprentices are brought to work in the Abu Dhabi facility. Ravindranath K / The National

The Fantini Mosaici workshop lies hidden in the depths of Mussafah, Abu Dhabi's grittiest, noisiest, most industrialised neighbourhood. Like the construction companies, engineers, factories and storehouses that surround it, Fantini's prefabricated facade is unremarkable, just one of many that line the uniform streets leading towards the city's dockyards. Yet while its neighbours belch smoke and noise pollution from dawn till dusk, at Fantini, quite a different working story unfolds.

Here among the cacophony of heavy industry, the gentile art of mosaic, a thousand-year-old craft, is painstakingly undertaken on a grand scale. Within the confines of Fantini's multiple workshops, marble, glass, enamel and semi-precious stones are carefully hand-cut and chipped, then crafted into designs destined for the walls and floors of hotels, boutiques, presidential palaces and the most ornate mosques all over the world.

The managing director, Lorenzo Lotesto, agrees that Mussafah is perhaps not the most idyllic setting for one of the world's largest mosaic workshops - nor their high-profile clientele. "We may not have a visitor here for 10 days or so, then the representatives of a prominent sheikh, head of state or foreign dignitary may turn up to order a commission or presentation. And they take us as they find us. We are not great marketeers," Lotesto shrugs. "Our reputation has always been word of mouth - and our craftsmanship speaks for itself."

Indeed it does. The company's most illustrious commission in the region to date is the floor of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, a dazzling pattern of vibrant flora and fauna designed by the British artist Kevin Dean. It covers an area the size of four football pitches and is currently the largest mosaic in the world. The company was also responsible for the mosque's Qibla wall, a 23-metre high, 50-metre wide masterpiece depicting the 99 names of Allah using 24 carat gold, gold leaf and gold glass mosaic.

Given the enormous prestige that these works of art have heaped on Fantini worldwide, it's hard to imagine that when Enrico Fantini, the CEO of the 110-year-old family-owned company, was first approached for the Grand Mosque commission, he wasn't that interested. "Sheikh Zayed wouldn't take no for an answer," Lotesto says. "He sent a plane to Milan to bring him to present and the project was born."

At the company's Milan headquarters, just eight craftsmen work on mosaics for Fantini's global clientele, which include the fashion titans Gucci, Prada and Louis Vuitton. The mosque alone would have taken these craftsmen three years to complete, but when the company won its next job in the region - the flooring and much of the interior of the Palazzo Versace - the company decided to take the craft out of Italy for the first time in its history. "This is an enormous project," Lotesto says. "In terms of quantity of mosaic it is 10 times that of the Grand Mosque, so it made sense to open a workshop here in the UAE."

The house of Versace is an old friend of Fantini Mosaici. Gianni Versace commissioned the company to craft all the mosaics in his palatial home in Miami (now a hotel), plus his fashion boutiques worldwide and several of the family's homes in Italy. They also worked on the original Palazzo Versace on Australia's Gold Coast. "The average age of the Fantini craftsmen on the job was 70 years old - it caused quite a reaction from the Australian media," says Lotesto.

However, the Dubai project required an entirely new strategy. Instead of using Italian graduates from northern Italy's mosaic school - graduates that are both diminishing rapidly in numbers and prohibitively expensive - the company decided to train local labour in the painstaking craft.

Along with financing from the United Nations, the company set up a Fantini Mosaici training centre in Lahore, Pakistan. "The Chamber of Commerce is also involved but Fantini Mosaici is very much at the centre of the initiative," Lotesto says. "The students are young local girls and boys and the training, for which they are paid an apprentice salary, is very similar to what they would receive in Italy. They are sent tools, materials, templates and projects to complete in a certain number of hours."

Every few months Lotesto travels to Lahore, selects the very best students and brings them back to Abu Dhabi. "Others, including all the girls, will get to work locally through the Chamber of Commerce since they have been trained as skilled craftsmen." For the lucky few students who make it to the UAE, their lives are transformed. They are paid well, their talent is finely honed and eventually many get to travel to work on commissions (the workshop is currently working on five presidential residences around the world).

Even while listening to the ancient sounds of hammer and chisel and watching the skill and concentration of the Fantini mosaicers, it is difficult to imagine that there is still a craft that cannot be improved by modern technology or machines - but this absolutely is the case. Even the glue used to fix the mosaic onto the templates is made of wheat flour and Arabic gum - as it has been for thousands of years.

"We truly are a sustainable industry," Lotesto says. "We use the materials from other production waste - broken tiles and glass, for instance. Our production wastes no natural resources and even our own waste is used to produce terrazzo [chips of marble and granite set in concrete and polished], which the Italian side of the company deals more with now."

One of Fantini's latest works was a map of the UAE designed in black enamel and glass with seven gold stars representing the seven Emirates. It was a gift to Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research. "Sheikh Nahyan is a big fan of Italy and with the mosaic we wanted to symbolise the strong relations of friendship between our country and the UAE," Lotesto says.

"It took almost 20,000 pieces of mosaic and 1,000 man-hours to complete, and that kind of work is just not financially viable in Italy anymore, where even a modest-sized work could command hundreds of thousands of euros. This country is enabling us to keep alive a dying trade, and to be able to build it up here in a place that has no previous history of mosaic is a great gift; it makes us very proud."

         

Published: November 26, 2011 04:00 AM

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